What Name Did Achilles Have Among the Maidens?

What Was Achilles' Name Among the Maidens?
His Parents Achilles was the son of Peleus, brother of Telamon and Phocis, and the goddess Thetis, one of the fifty daughters of the kindly old man of the sea, Nereus. Thetis was unlucky enough to be so beautiful that she excited the lust of Zeus and Poseidon, both of whom were determined to lie with her. To such a degree was Zeus enamored, in fact, he would have married her, putting aside Hera, something he had never dared for any of his other beloveds. Themis prophesied, however, that the son born to Thetis would be mightier than his father. Word of this soon reached Zeus, of course, and served to cool his ardor, for he feared that, were he to have a son by Thetis, as he must, then the son would follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and overthrow him. Zeus decided that it would be altogether better if Thetis were to marry someone else, in fact a mortal, entirely eliminating the possibility that, if she were to marry another god, namely his brother Poseidon, there would be trouble on Olympus from the child.

Zeus, therefore, decided that Thetis ought to marry Peleus.

Peleus' History Peleus, son of Aeacus1, had a checkered past. Telamon and Peleus, jealous of their brother Phocis, who excelled them in sport2, conspired to murder him. Inviting him to a game of quoits, one of the brothers (it is not certain which) struck Phocis with a quoit and killed him. When the murder was discovered, both Peleus and Telamon fled from the wrath of their father. Peleus went to the court of Eurytion in Phthia, who purified him. Eurytion then bestowed his daughter Antigone and one third of his kingdom on Peleus. Of Telamon we need not concern ourselves.

Apparently having learned nothing from the poor aim that Peleus had shown in the recent past, Eurytion then took Peleus on a boar hunt, during which Peleus, true to his form, accidentally struck his host with a javelin, killing him. Naturally, it being rather embarrassing to have killed the very man who had purified him and who had become his father-in-law and co-king, Peleus did not feel comfortable in Phthia and betook himself to the court of Acastus in Iolcus.

Acastus purified Peleus yet one more time, and invited him to the games that were to be held in honor of Pelias3. Peleus, no doubt to the relief of his host, entered as a wrestler, but  his athletic prowess again failed to manifest itself as he was beaten by Atalanta. As Fate would have it, Astydamia, the wife of Acastus, became enamored of Peleus and made repeated solicitations of him, all of which he refused.

Astydamia, not one to take rejection lying down, sent word to Antigone that Peleus was going to marry Sterope, the daughter of Acastus, and Antigone hanged herself in despair. Astydamia was not finished: to her husband she denounced Peleus, saying that he had attempted to ravish her. Acastus was unwilling to kill Peleus, who was his guest, but he lured him into the forest on Mt. Pelion on the pretext of yet another hunt, and then abandoned him when they made camp at nightfall, first taking care to hide Peleus' magic sword4 in cow manure.

When Peleus awoke in the morning, he was surprised and captured by Centaurs. Deprived of his sword, Peleus would have been slain, except that Chiron intervened and prevented his fellows from killing their captive. Chiron also returned to Peleus his sword.

Peleus, in recognition of his chastity, received Thetis in marriage, although he had to win her before they could marry. On the advice of Chiron (or Proteus, who ought to know), Peleus took hold of Thetis by the hair. She, unwilling to be made the wife of a mortal, resisted and, exercising her power to change shapes, she took the form of fire, water, wind, a tree, a bird, a tiger, a lion, a serpent, and an octopus or cuttle-fish. Finally, she resumed her own shape5, remarking as she conceded that he could not have caught her without assistance from some or other god.

Marriage of Peleus and Thetis Their marriage was catered by Chiron in his sumptuous cave under Pelion and was attended by all the gods, who, obviously attempting to make up to Thetis for what she considered a bad match, threw a grand reception. As a wedding gift to the bridegroom, Chiron hewed a tall ash into a spear shaft, Athene polished it, and Hephaistos forged its bronze point. Thus was the longest spear in the world placed in the hands of the worst spearman living.

Birth and Childhood It is said that Peleus and Thetis had seven children. Thetis enjoined Peleus never to question her about them. Each one she placed in the fire to burn away its mortal inheritance. Peleus, who was grieved that he had none of his children remaining, watched Thetis closely when the seventh child was born. Daily she would anoint the boy with Ambrosia and at night place him in the fire. She had not finished with the seventh child6 when Peleus burst in and reproached her. Thetis threw the child down before he could be made immortal like his brethren and ran out, returning to Nereus her father in the ocean. Peleus took the child to Chiron7 to be reared.

Chiron, according Apollodorus (Libr. III.13.6), named the boy Achilles. Under Chiron's tutelage, Achilles became fleet, skilled at arms, and a most excellent singer and harpist. (Chiron was also a skilled physician with a profound knowledge of herbs, but he could not heal himself.) When it was prophesied by Calchas that Troy could not be taken without the son of Peleus and Thetis, his mother took Achilles, then nine years old, from Chiron to hide him, knowing that he would be slain if he went to the war. She dressed Achilles in the garments of a maiden and took him to the court of Lycomedes in Scyros, concealing him among the girls8. But Ulysses found out where Achilles had been hidden and tricked him into showing himself9. Achilles then chose to join the Greeks in their expedition, knowing that he would die, for it had been foretold that he could live long but in total obscurity or die young and earn undying fame, which latter he preferred.

Ancient Guesses It is at this point that we re-visit Tiberius' question: what name did Achilles assume among the maidens? Some of the replies that he received included Pyrrha, because Achilles had red hair (, flame-colored10) (and he had an ancestor named Pyrrhus and Neoptolemus, his son, was called Pyrrus), Issa, because of his fleetness, and Cercysera, because of the distaff that he would have had under his arm while spinning. Mr Robert Graves suggested Dacryoessa or Drosoessa (The White Goddess, p. 213 n. Graves mistakenly says the source of the story is Apollonius rather than Apollodorus.)

Female Ancestors Looking back into the pedigree of Achilles, we find that he had female antecedents named Metope, Aegina, Endeis, and a step-grandmother Psamathe. While any of these names, especially Psamathe11, would have been appropriate as an alias for Achilles, they would have been transparent to Ulysses (or Tiberius) and would have been rejected. If the lineage of Achilles had been longer, we might have had a more promising selection.

The Answer Actually, the question has already been answered. When Peleus took the baby to Chiron to be reared, the child carried the name Ligyron ( Gr.Ligyron), meaning "loud", "clear" or "sweet", as in "Clear-toned" or "Sweet-voiced". The root of this word comes from "LEG-", meaning a "string", a "binding" or "ligature", and it is related to the word for "wood", literally a "bundle of sticks for a fire" (because they were bound up with a cord). Lignite, a variety of bituminous coal exhibiting traces of its woody source, is a familiar English woody derivative. All of these forms have relevance to Achilles, who was placed upon a fire to remove his mortal impurities, who was a renowned singer and harpist, and who was skilled with a bow. (Ironically, he was killed by a bolt directed by Apollo from the bow of Alexander.) The twanging of the bowstring suggests the sound of the harp string and the singing of the clear, high pitched voice of the youth. It should also be pointed out that Achilles was mere days old when he was taken to Chiron and renamed, so that only Peleus, Thetis, and Chiron would have known the child's birth name. It is likely that Chiron changed Ligyron's name in an attempt to turn aside the fate that had been predicted for him. At any rate, none who knew the original name would have disclosed it after the new name had been given. There can be no other conclusion:

Achilles' name among the maidens was Ligyria.

To those who might object that this name also would have been rejected by Tiberius as obvious, one can only reply that none who answered him was reported to have suggested the name, and the knowledge of it appears to have been restricted to a rather small number of persons before its publication by Apollodorus. Even then it did not become well known. It is not mentioned by Statius.

Achilles and Liguria The Relationship of Achilles to Liguria

It is tempting to try to find some link between Ligyron Achilles and the Ligurian region in northern Italy near Genoa, but none immediately suggests itself. The Ligures were described anciently as being extremely hardy folk who had become inured to hardships through the roughness of their existence. They were reputedly excellent warriors as a result. The region was remarkable for its stony character, attributed to a shower of stones sent by Zeus in answer to a prayer of Hercules, who used the stones as missiles in a battle against the native inhabitants. The stones proved to be a continuing scourge to the people, who had to put their whole population, male and female, to work in the fields in order to eke out a subsistence crop from the stubborn soil. In illustration of their obduracy, there is one popular ancient story of a woman who, despite being near her term, went to her daily labors in the fields, and, when the child was about to be born, she retired to a private place, delivered her infant, placed it in the bushes, and then returned to work. She was persuaded only with difficulty to take the rest of the day off.

While the hardihood and martial abilities of the Ligures are found in Achilles Ligyron, there is no other similarity that can be readily adduced to attach the hero to that area. The name of the geographical Liguria may have nothing to do with Achilles, the region having acquired the appellation, perhaps, because of its forest cover, which is the most dense in Italy, even to this day.

However, if we care to look more deeply into the matter, it would appear that both the Ligurians and the Aiginaens entertained a similar if not identical notion of a chthonic origin, with divine parents of earth and fire.

Oracular  Fire-god If we examine the story of Hercules pelting the aboriginal Ligures with stones that had been sent to him in a shower from heaven, we can see that it is almost certainly a misinterpretation of a depiction of the Deucalion12 myth. The people in the image are not being pelted with rocks but are springing up from rocks hurled by a fire god. Hercules, no doubt, was red-haired, and the story describing him ascending to heaven in fire, wearing a fiery shirt, is proof of his sun-god nature. Pyrrha was Deucalion's mate, we recall. Whether the rocks are meteoric, actual fire from heaven, pieces of the sun, thunderbolts being supposed meteors, is not clear, but vulcanism, which produces rains of fiery rocks, is the more likely intended source.

The people of Aegina, the Myrmidons, were also sprung from the earth, ants issuing from the earth and turned into men. That Achilles is a fire god or descended from a fire daimon is also clear, particularly when we recall his red hair, and that he impregnated a maiden, a virgin, while at the hearth of Lycomedes, producing a son called Pyrrhus. The impregnation of a virgin by the fire god at the hearth is an old conceit, one shared by the Romans, who said that Mars, in the form of a phallus of fire from the eternal flame tended by the Vestals, impregnated Rhea Silva (Queen of the Wood), who brought forth Romulus and Remus. The name Achilles, anciently said to be derived from "lipless", would be appropriate to an oracular fire god, the god's voice being thought to issue from the fire as the shrill hisses and screeches of the burning wood (another reason to call him Ligyron, q.v. above). And, of course, Achilles was said to have come out of the fire himself, purified and rendered impervious by it. Were the Ligurians and the Aiginaens related? Perhaps.

The names of the Ligures and Ligyron suggest that both were connected to the ceremony in which a straw man or a man made from a bundle of sticks was immolated in remembrance of their fiery ancestor or fiery sire whom they punningly13 named Ligyron.

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Notes 1 Aeacus was a son of Zeus, born of Aegina, who gave her name to the island where Zeus took her. Because the island was unpopulated, Zeus turned its ants into men, from whom the name of the Myrmidons was fancifully derived. Aeacus was renowned for his piety and judgement, and, after death, was made one of the Judges of the Underworld. Back to Text.

2 The murder, rather than the simple hobbling, of champion athletes seems to have been not uncommon, as the slaying by competitors of Androgeus, son of Minos, demonstrates. Androgeos was the patron of sailors, a role befitting a Minoan, and a small shrine to him was commonly placed on the stern of Greek ships. There was in Piraeus an altar to him, a partial recompense for his murder.   Back to Text.

3 Pelias was his father. Back to Text.

4 This sword was forged by Hephaistos and its bearer was invincible. Back to Text.

5 Her natural shape was, despite the assertions of later fabulists, that of a woman not of a mermaid. For this we have the evidence of Pliny (Nat. Hist. IX.9)who cites the reports of a Lusitanian embassy to Tiberius, an Augustan governor of Gaul, members of the Equites, and some anonymous denizens of the Iberian coast. To wit:

Tiberio principi nuntiavit Olisiponensium legatio ob id missa visum auditumque in quodam specu concha canentem Tritonem qua noscitur forma. et Nereidum falsa non est, squamis modo hispido corpore etiam qua humanum effigiem habent; namque haec in eudem spectata litore est, cuius morientis etiam cantum tristem accolae audivere longe; et divo Augusto legatus Galliae complures in litore apparere examines Nereidas scripsit. Auctores habeo in equestri ordine splendentes visum ab his in Gaditano oceano marinum hominem toto corpore absoluta similitudine;

Not to put too fine a point, these are the reports of witnesses who would today be termed "creditable" by the investigators of UFO sightings and crop circles.

That the water folk all had the ability to alter their shapes is shown by the numerous stories about rivers and streams roaming out of their banks and by the wrestling match of Menelaus with Proteus. Back to Text.

6 This is the version of the story of Achilles most often repeated to explain why his invulnerability was incomplete, but there is another familiar one, wherein it is claimed that Thetis bestowed invulnerability on Achilles by dipping him into Styx, holding him by the heel, which was not immersed and remained vulnerable. Both Meleager and Ajax were likewise invulnerable except in one respect. When Ajax tried to kill himself by running upon his own sword, the sword bent double against his breast. He was vulnerable only in the armpit. Back to Text.

7 Chiron the Centaur was accounted the wisest and best of his race, the rest of whom were relatively hostile to humans and generally lawless. He seems to have been respected by both humans and Centaurs, however, and was constantly mediating disputes between humans and his own kind. A combination of headmaster at an English boarding school and Father Flanagan, he ran a sort of academy for the sons of heroes. Apollo entrusted to Chiron the education of his son, Ascelapius, as did Actor (Patroclus) and ,by Hesiod's account, Medea (Medus). Jason also was tutored by Chiron. Back to Text.

8 Achilles did not conceal himself from the maidens, for he fathered a child, Neoptolemus, upon Lycomedes' daughter Deidamia, while in their midst. Back to Text.

9 The basic story of how Ulysses (Odysseus) revealed Achilles is thus: Ulysses disguised himself as a pedlar and presented himself to the ladies of the household, laying out his wares in two lots, one of clothes and ornaments and the other of weaponry. The women gathered round the first lot, while Achilles went to the second, thereby betraying his sex. Another version of the story exists which tells that Achilles did not go to the arms until Ulysses had some companions clash their swords and shields in the courtyard, at which noise Achilles quickly armed himself and ran to engage in battle. In either case, the luckless Thetis would have been wiser to hide her son among the Amazons. Back to Text.

10 The name might also derive aptly from , "wheat" since persons who were swift runners were said to be able to run over the tops of the wheat stalks without bending them. Another alternative is to relate Pyrrhus to the Pyrrhic Dance, a ritualistic mumming performed by dancers in full battle arms, choreographed from the moves of a warrior in combat. The dance was performed in Rome by the Salii, the dancing priests of Mars, who proceeded through the city and gave exhibitions in various public places. Their performances were followed by extravagant banquets. Since Achilles and Mars appear to be kindred fire spirits or gods, Pyrrhus might actually have been a son of Ares. There was a tradition told in Delos that Neoptolemus (Pyrrhus) was slain by the priest of Apollo while attempting to sack the shrine of Apollo. This may have been a story based upon a mistaken interpretation of the Pyrrhic Dance.  Back to Text.

11 Psamathe was, like Thetis, a Nereid, and had changed herself into a seal to escape Aeacus, but was caught by him regardless. Considering the number of transformations used by Thetis, she did not try very hard or was inept at shape-shifting. She was the mother of the ill-fated Phocis. Back to Text.

12 Deucalion was the Greek equivalent of Noah of the Jews and Utnapishtim of the Babylonians and Ziusudra of the Sumerians. Back to Text.

13 It is a feature (not a bug) of the human mind that sacred texts are filled with puns. In the most ancient works of holy writ, puns abound. Puns were standard devices in the sacred styles of even stern peoples. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, than which there could be no more serious document, the whole welfare of the decedent through "millions upon millions of years" depending from it, puns upon the names of the very gods whose aid is necessary to the salvation of the dead (e.g. Thoth and the Egyptian words for Law and Ibis). The more literary passages of the Old and New Testaments seemingly rejoice in puns. Even the dour Romans could not resist the urge to find puns when speaking of their colorless deities, perhaps because they were so bloodless, their veins filled with pale ichor. One must assume, that anciently deities had a sense of humor, or were believed to have had, which has since been lost.

Puns are an example of parallel thinking. Puns combine objects and concepts that might otherwise be unrelated, and in this forced relation the concepts and objects become richer in meaning. Puns are important to the authors of myths and, thus, to those who would interpret them, for they illustrate perceptions received by the authors, revealing something of their manner of thought, both conscious and unconscious. It is typical of puns that they are spontaneous, therefore unconscious, and can embody understanding that is not immediately obvious but which exists nonetheless. It is imperative, then, to take seriously even the most far-fetched derivations, because there may be contained in them some disguised truth that we have not yet uncovered. Back to Text.